Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
Fear transcends borders and languages. For this week's installment of Debate Club, we decided to highlight our favorite foreign-language horror films. Narrowing the list down to five was maddening. (Truly, we could devote the next several weeks to showing love to the best horror films from specific countries.)
In other words, we apologize in advance to fans of, say, Ringu, or Suspiria, or Raw, or The Devil's Backbone, or … well, you get the idea. What we ended up with was a final five that spanned not just countries and languages but also eras. The oldest film on this list is close to celebrating its centenary. The newest hit our shores in a few years back.
Goodnight Mommy (2014)
One of the many great things about Goodnight Mommy is that it works whether you figure out "the big twist" or you don't. The movie, from Austrian helmers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, is so primal, yet so fiercely logical, that it gets under your skin long before its mysteries begin to reveal themselves. Also, there's something truly daring about how far this movie is willing to go to follow its own vision. It takes you where you're afraid to go… and then a little farther.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
Kim Jee-woon's English-language debut, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-led The Last Stand (2013), might not have connected with audiences (though it was actually pretty good), but you can see why Hollywood wanted a part of him. He has a way of making the truly horrifying — and there is much in I Saw the Devil that is truly horrifying — appear almost work-a-day, casual, just part of the natural atmosphere. This revenge tale's tone varies madly throughout, but Jee-woon remains a master of all of them. And the ending … it's just killer.
Let the Right One In (2008)
The rare foreign horror film whose remake is just as good (if not better), Let the Right One In has one distinct Swedish advantage: all that snow. That snow, and the way blood looks when splashed across it. The movie is chilly (sorry) and removed, but also deeply, creepily romantic. It's pretty difficult to find a new way to tell a vampire story. This one finds several.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
Pauline Kael called it "a concentrated essay in horror fantasy, full of weird, macabre camera effects," adding "this first important film of the vampire genre has more spectral atmosphere, more ingenuity, and more imaginative ghoulish ghastliness than any of its successors." Released in 1922, Nosferatu hasn't lost any of its power to be deeply unnerving. German filmmaker F.W. Murnau snagged Bram Stoker's novel for inspiration, casting theatre actor Max Schreck to play Count Orlok, a creepy gent with a fondness for blood.
A highlight of German Expressionism that makes great use of evocative shadows to create a nightmare world, Nosferatu may be a silent film, but you don't need to hear voices to understand what a supremely scary sight Schreck is.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000) is a cheeky imagining of Nosferatu's making, in which Willem Dafoe plays Schreck, who just might be an actual vampire ...
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
A horror film about guilt, the French chiller Eyes Without a Face uses a familiar cinematic trope — the mad scientist who cannot be stopped — and turns it into a shocking, saddening portrait of a father and his daughter. Director Georges Franju tells us the story of Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), who kidnaps beautiful young women so he can use their faces to help repair his lovely daughter Christiane (Édith Scob), who was badly disfigured in a car accident. (The driver, by the way, was none other than Doctor Génessier.)
Eyes Without a Face is a sick and twisted (but also quite poignant) examination of the lengths parents will go to undo the damage they've wrought upon their children.